Three weeks in the Paris of North America. Three weeks contemplating the suffering and rejected Christ. Three weeks of soul-searching.
Though a Jesuit’s summer is often full of Jesuit-formation activities, such as making one’s own eight-day retreat and attending formation gatherings, there are chunks of time that often lend themselves to creativity. I had three weeks at my disposal and I decided to make good use of them. I have been the last three weeks in Montreal, volunteering at a well-established (since 1877) soup kitchen and shelter – Accueil Bonneau.
My initial decision was simply to come to Montreal in order to polish my French. Not really knowing how to go about doing this in a most effective way, I asked some French Canadian Jesuits for some suggestions. After a few email exchanges it was decided that I’d have lots of French conversation at a soup kitchen. Hence Accueil Bonneau.
Before long I realized that what initially was perceived as French practice, quickly became friend-making time and some deep soul-searching time. How could it not? Once we enter the realm of disinterested service, things tend to stubbornly take on different forms, forms that we initially did not mould ourselves.
Accueil Bonneau daily welcomes anywhere from 350 to 700 people for brunch. Numbers drop significantly for lunch, anywhere below 150. Most of the people that frequent Accueil Bonneau have lots of “frequent flyer points”, i.e., the same people are usually there every day. I was there from Monday to Friday, for three weeks. After a couple of days I began to recognize people and make some small talk with them. I started to learn about their lives and why it is that they are on the streets. The truth is not easy to hear. There are many suffering people out there that carry very heavy burdens of which we know nothing.
As I talked to them, heard their stories, and served them food, I honestly asked myself if indeed Christ is in them. But look how rugged and unkept they are! And the things they’ve done! How can this be Jesus? Sure, Jesus in Matthew 25:31–46 reminds us that “whenever you did these things for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did them for me!” Truly? I can find you so many more people that show Christ to the world. But these? The answer to these musings did not come through reflection, however. Rather, the more I served them and looked them in the eyes, and engaged them, and saw each one’s uniqueness, this one’s smiles, that one’s meekness, the more I saw humanity’s raw face. No makeup, no Photoshopped appearances, simply humanity au naturel. I heard the grumblings, the complaining, yes, the cussing. I also saw fraternity, loyalty, humour, and joy. The real stuff, no mask or pretension. With this realization, which took a couple of days to take root, there came the image of the Christ who was downcast and trampled underfoot by his oppressors during Holy Week, a Christ not particularly beautiful or attractive to the eye.
|Ecce homo, by Michael D. O’Brien|
All along I’ve tried to picture the Transfigured and Resurrected Christ in people. But more often then not people are carrying heavy burdens – in a unique and real way they are somewhat like Christ, who also carried upon himself the heavy burdens of fallen humanity. It ain’t a pretty picture, fallen humanity, that is. I was looking for beauty in the wrong place. In the picture perfect society that we live in, in the age of Photoshop, we have a skewed view of beauty. It ultimately leads us to the question: Is suffering beautiful? I certainly don’t want to glorify suffering and praise it. What is beautiful, however, is authenticity and self-gift. The ugliness of the Passion can therefore be beautiful as can the face of a rugged individual authentically struggling with self-identity and the psychological scars of past abuses.
I am grateful for the opportunity to grow closer to these strangers. After three weeks I felt fond of them and did not want to leave, but alas, the rest of the Jesuit-formation activities call.